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Spain: The Canary Islands Sustainability Charter in Tenerife

History and context

The Canary Islands comprise an autonomous region of Spain, located in the Atlantic Ocean roughly 100 km west of Morocco. The seven main islands and various smaller islands and islets are classified as one of the outermost regions of the European Union. While the permanent population of the islands is estimated at around 2 million inhabitants, an estimated 12 million tourists visit the islands each year, generating 32% of the region’s GDP1.

Whale-watching occurs year round in all the islands. The main areas of activity overlap with areas protected through the European Union Natura 2000 Network.

During 2008- 2018, there was an overall growth in whale watching activity. Following an uncertain period during the economic crisis, changes were seen in the type of vessel being used (with a reduction in the number of larger vessels) and the type of excursion (with a move to shorter, lower-price excursions).

Estimates for 2008 suggested a total of 625,000 whale watching visitors in the Canary Islands. Ticket price varies substantially, ranging from €6 to €60  depending on the trip duration and type.  In 2008, a total of 37 vessels were licensed for whale watching operations in the Canary Islands, with a major part of the industry is concentrated in the island of Tenerife: approximately 70% of the vessels, 65% of the operator business and 75% of the passenger carrying capacity. 

By the end of 2018, 111 whale watching vessels were licensed to operate throughout the archipelago, comprising 82 companies spread over 16 ports. Total passenger capacity is 3,951 places. There are another five boats and another port for which authorisation is underway.

Whale watching data for the Canary Islands 2018

nº Harbours

Nº Vessels

Nº WW Enterprises







Gran Canaria










La Palma

























*In Tenerife another 5 boats are waiting for authorisation

Tourism on Tenerife

Of the seven main islands, Tenerife is the most popular tourist destination, receiving an estimated 5 million tourists per year, with a booming tourism industry and well-established infrastructure to accommodate tourists, the majority of whom come from Northern or Central Europe (including 35% from Britain, and 11 % from Germany)1.

Up to 22 species of cetaceans can be seen off the south-west coast of Tenerife, making it an important location for whale watching. This area is home to populations of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorinchus), which can be seen year round, and several species of turtles2.

The rich biodiversity of this area and the need to preserve it has been recognised by the EU, which has included it in the Natura 2000 Network as the Teno-Rasca Marine Strip.

Tourism is the main activity on Tenerife. It attracted 5.7 million tourists in 2017, generating 4,305 million euros. Whale watching is one of the main products, being the second most popular activity among tourists (724 thousand tourists, 12.7% of the total in 2017)3. It is also the second most popular activity in terms of direct economic impact, with estimated revenues of 26.6 million euros in 2017. 66 boats are currently authorised for this activity.

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Regulatory and management measures

In 1996, the Canary Island government issued a set of regulations that required whale watch tour operators to obtain permits.  To meet permit requirements, operators had to demonstrate certain safety and environmental standards, agree to have a guide on board, and respect approach guidelines. The regulations were updated in 2000 (Decree 178/2000)  and 2007 (Royal Decree 1727/2007) to include some more specific rules that distinguish approach guidelines for whales and dolphins and clarify other measures.  

Although regulated by national and autonomous community regulations which, clearly set down the terms and conditions for whale watching, the implementation of these regulations was challenging, and the number of boats operating illegally increased. This in turn led to a decrease in the price of the service, and a reduction in the quality of the tourist experience. In addition, the subsequent impact on companies that carried out the activity legally, generated an atmosphere of mistrust.

The marine ecosystem also suffered the effects of this illegal and environmentally unfriendly activity. Studies have been carried out showing the impact of this on the resident short-finned pilot whales4.

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Promotion of best practices

As a result, in 2010 Tenerife Tourism Corporation (TTC)5 launched a project to foster the transition towards an ecotourism model, fostering a commitment to best practices - rather than just complying with regulations - among companies. This participative work led to the Whale Watching Quality Charter. This Charter featured 15 points to which companies voluntarily commit, relating to quality of service and environmental protection: selective waste management, cleanliness of the marine environment, effective guides, introductory talks on the trip, whales and other natural resources, and awareness about caring for the environment. The Charter was launched with 10 companies.

TTC's commitment to the companies involves specialist training and support for implementing the Charter, and promotional and educational material for the product.

All of the companies involved have been evaluated every year from 2012-2018, through mystery shopping. The number of companies involved has varied as a result of this assessment, with 15 companies committed in 2019.

Changing trends in tourism, the development of the sector and new businesses getting involved meant the Charter needed updating in 2018. In response, TTC began a process to update the regulations, working with the whale watching industry. A collaborative research project, involving the businesses, the local government's environmental specialists, the Government of the Canary Islands and the Ministry of the Environment, and scientists and specialists from the nature museum and local councils, resulted in the updated Whale Watching Sustainability Charter: 

The mission of the new Charter is to foster the whale-watching sector's commitment to be the custodians of cetaceans and promoting Tenerife as a sustainable-tourism destination, positively impacting the local population and our visitors.

Our vision for 2025 is for Tenerife to be a tourism destination that cares for and respects whales, providing a model of sustainability for other parts of the world that share their coasts with whales and dolphins.

The Charter commitments

The new Charter comprises 24 indicators, reflecting five commitments:

  • Transmitting significant and transformative experiences
  • Offering a tourism product that does justice to a unique environment
  • Caring for the environment and the local community
  • Complying with all prevailing regulations
  • Transparency, commitment and continuous improvement.

The indicators include:

  • A careful approach that respects the animals
  • Selective management of waste and no single-use plastics

Compliance with these commitments is assessed using a number of measures, including mystery shopping and a self-assessment questionnaire.

The new role of Associates of the Charter allows entities and companies in other sectors to join. For example, the Hotel Hovima La Pinta - located near one of the departure ports for the trips - was named as the first Associate. To reflect its commitment, the hotel redesigned its image, installed a mural with the species of cetaceans that can be seen around the island and an information panel on the Teno-Rasca Marine Strip, as well as offering activities to promote these issues. The hotel has also undertaken only to work with boats that have signed up to the Charter.

The companies that have signed up to the Charter are listed here.

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Lessons learned and impacts

This charter has been a useful tool to boost sustainability in whale watching in Tenerife, working together with the companies. Fifteen companies have signed up to the Charter. This represents 32 boats, almost 50% of the authorized boats.  Another 10 companies are waiting to be assessed, which would bring the total to 60% of the sector.

Since 2010, some of the companies have evolved from offering generic maritime trips to specialising in whale watching, prioritising observation of marine life over other tourist services.

The companies that have signed up to the Charter have enhanced their commitment to conserving the environment, increasing their collections of marine waste during the trips and promoting environmental education, as you can see on these links.

Single-use plastic glasses used during trips are being replaced by bio-degradable glasses. This will reduce the number of plastic glasses by 640,500 per year, and could reach 750,000. This indicator is in line with recent EU initiatives to significantly reduce the impact of plastic packaging on the marine environment.

Employees of these companies are receiving specialist training to improve their performance. Five workshops on marine species, marketing, regulations and guidance were held in 2017. A workshop on injured marine life and a course for sales personnel have been held in 2018. 80 workers have been trained.

The Charter is the first free certification initiative for whales developed jointly by the public and private sectors, through their commitment to sustainability, raising the profile of this activity with the public authorities. It has been submitted to 15th UNWTO Awards this year.

A key factor in the success of the Charter is the collaborative work with companies, technicians and local authorities, which increased trust among the companies. The companies that have signed up to the Charter are developing an association for sustainable whale watching and for the conservation of the marine environment, ACEST (Ecological Association for Cetaceans in the South of Tenerife).

A key lesson has been that even where regulatory measures are well designed, effective implementation is needed. The Charter has helped to boost a more sustainable activity although the oversight of the authorities is still needed.

For more information about whale watching in Tenerife, Canary Islands, please contact: and webtenerife

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Show / Hide References
  1. Estadistica, I. C. d. Estadisticas de Demografia, 2017).
  2. Elejabeitia, C.  and E.  Urquiola.  2009.  Whale-watching in Canary Islands. Pages 23 IWC/61/CC10 International Whaling Comission Scientific Committee, Tuesday, 16 June 2009, Madeira.
  3. Report “Los turistas que visitan Tenerife 2017”. Tenerife Tourism Corporation
  4. MARRERO PÉREZ, J., CRESPO TORRES, A., ESCÁNEZ PÉREZ, A. & ALBALADEJO ROBLES, G. (2016). MITCALD. Determinación de factores de riesgo para la conservación de la población de Calderón tropical (Globicephala macrorhynchus) en el ZEC ES-7020017. TENERIFE.  Contaminación acústica, interacciones tróficas y colisiones (Memoria técnica). Informe de Asociación Tonina para la Fundación Biodiversidad-MAGRAMA
  5. Tenerife Tourism Corporation (Turismo de Tenerife) is the public company in charge of the tourism management in the island. Our entity is financed for Cabildo Insular de Tenerife (Government of the Island).

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